Doomed Titan Submersible Was Showpiece for Deep Sea Oil Industry
Running macabre tours of the Titanic wreck for rich tourists was just a side gig for OceanGate Inc. The company's end goal was to help extreme fossil fuel companies explore the deep ocean.
To understand how five people died this week in an experimental, uncertified submersible in the North Atlantic, it helps to know that the deadly hubris behind the project was meant to catch the interest of the offshore oil industry.
Thanks to a previously obscure interview published in 2017, we know that the macabre tours of the Titanic wreck were just a side gig for OceanGate, Inc. and its founder and CEO, Stockton Rush. The company was just looking for wealthy tourists with more money than common sense to give it the profile and proof of concept to go after the bigger fish.
As Fast Company reported on April 14, 2017:
Eventually, as the pool of wealthy adventure-minded travelers willing to take a dive in a sub dwindles, Rush hopes that his submarine technology will be well proven, and he can start to contract with the biggest of the high rollers: oil and gas companies. “The biggest resource is oil and gas, and they spend about $16 billion a year on robots to service oil and gas platforms,” he explains. “But oil and gas [companies] don’t take new technology. They want it proven, they want it out there.”
The Titanic trips help make the case, showing those oil and gas companies that his technology works, while making a profit—something the company hasn’t quite done yet. “We’ll be profitable with the Titanic trips,” says Rush. “The Titanic is where we go from startup to ongoing business.”
(h/t to Practical Utopian and B.C. Sustainable Energy Association founder Guy Dauncey for first pointing us to this story.)
What the New York Times calls “confidence”, but the rest of us might call an arrogant disregard for reality, may have been baked into the DNA of Richard Stockton Rush III, an heir to a San Francisco oil fortune determined to build his company into “SpaceX for the ocean”. An occasional standup comedian in his spare time, he apparently liked to joke that he came into his money “the old-fashioned way”, the Times says—“I was born into it and then grew it.”
Rush’s dream imploded this week along with the submersible itself. But his idea wasn’t inconsistent with the oil industry’s continuing mission: to go farther and farther afield to drill for ever more exotic, dangerous, and expensive sources of extreme oil and gas that no one will need or want by the time they can get it to market.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
The sub is in pieces on the ocean floor, and we shouldn’t be surprised if our next clear view of OceanGate is in a courtroom. But even a casual news scan while the submersible drama was unfolding showed that the fossil fuel industry’s deep sea activities are alive and well. On Thursday, industry newsletter Rigzone reported that offshore oil and gas exploration was in a renaissance, with spending set to increase more than 20% this year.
Offshore exploration “from shallow to deepwater is experiencing a broad resurgence,” Olivier Le Peuch, CEO of oilfield technology company SLB, told a conference audience last week, with 400 active offshore rigs in use and more expected.
On Friday, citing Chinese state media, Rigzone said China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) had achieved a “breakthrough in the country’s construction capacity for deepwater technology” with completion of its longest deep ocean oil pipeline ever. The line is a “crucial component” of China’s first independently-developed ultra-deepwater operation, serving as a “lifeline” for smooth transportation of offshore oil and gas, Rigzone wrote.
At sea and on land, just a few of the industry’s other greatest hits include:
• ExxonMobil’s deepwater drilling in Guyana, where the impoverished and now fossil-dependent host country—not the world’s biggest privately-held oil and gas company—would be liable if a spill fouled the beaches of 14 different countries that depend on them for fishing and tourism;
• An oil sands industry in northern Alberta that has let its stockpile of toxic tailings waste grow to 1.4 trillion litres, an expanse bigger than the city of Vancouver, forcing downstream Indigenous communities and the federal government to consider releasing industrial waste into the Athabasca River rather than waiting for an even more disastrous uncontrolled tailings dam breach;
• The proposed Rio Grande liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Brownsville, Texas, which would be located less than six miles from a SpaceX facility that routinely launches a different tech bro’s rockets into space and has reported multiple explosions.
Don’t Sweat the Details
A common factor across all of these snapshots and so many more is the assumption, stated or tacit, that there’s no need to sort out the details—just let the big megaproject go ahead, wait for someone else to take the consequences, and whatever you do, don’t smother “innovation” in rules and paperwork.
Stockton Rush’s company laid out that philosophy in a February, 2019 blog post that has since been taken down by someone who’d apparently never heard of the Wayback Machine. The unbylined post sought to explain why OceanGate, which reportedly built a bargain-basement submersible out of carbon fibre that wasn’t fit for purpose and was deemed “past its shelf life” by Boeing, decided not to go through the humdrum, boring process of getting it safety certified.
When OceanGate was founded the goal was to pursue the highest reasonable level of innovation in the design and operation of manned submersibles. By definition, innovation is outside of an already accepted system. However, this does not mean that OceanGate does meet standards where they apply, but it does mean that innovation often falls outside of the existing industry paradigm.
While classing agencies are willing to pursue the certification of new and innovative designs and ideas, they often have a multi-year approval cycle due to a lack of pre-existing standards, especially, for example, in the case of many of OceanGate’s innovations, such as carbon fiber pressure vessels and a real-time (RTM) hull health monitoring system. Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation.
A year earlier, Rush put his frustrations in more personal terms in an email exchange with submersible operations expert Rob McCallum.
“You are wanting to use a prototype un-classed technology in a very hostile place,” eerily echoing the “she is unsinkable” catchphrase that brought the Titanic down more than a century earlier, McCallum wrote. “As much as I appreciate entrepreneurship and innovation, you are potentially putting an entire industry at risk.”
“We have been hearing the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone’ way too often,” Rush replied. “I take this as a serious personal insult.”
The 2019 blog post cited Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX (hello, Brownville) as companies that “rely on experienced inside experts” instead of independent certifiers “who need to first be educated before being qualified to ‘validate’ any innovations.”
Are we worried yet?
Who Needs a Safety Certification?
That attitude made the Titan the only one of 10 submersibles in the world capable of diving 4,000 metres or deeper to hit the water without certification. Its “dangerous path” prompted more than three dozen experts to raise flags about the company, CBC reported three days ago.
"Our apprehension is that the current 'experimental' approach adopted by OceanGate could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry," they wrote.
The letter added that OceanGate’s marketing pitches were, "at minimum, misleading to the public and breache[d] an industry-wide professional code of conduct."
That was two months after the company fired its director of marine operations after he’d exposed the dangers the submersible could encounter at extreme depths, CBC writes.
I wish my dad, whose career as a consulting engineer spanned about 40 years, were here to see this. His response would have been…colourful. (Mr. Brasloff, this one’s for you.)
In fairness, the oil and gas industry faces safety standards and certifications as tough as OceanGate ever imagined. But its day-to-day practices have still led to a continuing avalanche of health, safety, and environmental violations. At least one former safety consultant has blown the whistle on industry practices. And the sector’s performance will go from bad to worse as some of the world’s biggest producers move to “decarbonize” their portfolios by selling off their oldest, most marginal operations to smaller companies with even less ability or inclination to operate them safely.
Some Lives Matter More
Once the Titan got into trouble, and until the debris field was located, no expense was spared to bring any possible survivors to safety. Joyce Murray, minister responsible for the Canadian Coast Guard, declared the cost of the U.S.-led rescue mission “irrelevant”.
Any seafaring community or household will tell you that was the right answer. If someone is lost at sea—whoever it is, and even if their predicament is their own damn fault—you keep searching as long as there’s any hope of bringing them back alive.
But the timing of this particular search brought home the crushing message that some lives are considered a lot more valuable than others.
After Stockton Rush navigated his gullible customers to their deaths, the constant, minute-to-minute news vigil effortlessly eclipsed reporting on what may have been the worst migrant boat disaster ever in the Mediterranean Sea. The fishing boat off the coast of southern Greece capsized June 14 carrying up to 750 Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian refugees and migrants.
“I can still hear the voice of a woman calling out for help,” one survivor told CNN. “You’d swim and move floating bodies out of your way.”
Severe storms, flooding, drought, economic precarity, and armed conflict that are caused or made worse by the climate emergency are expected to create the biggest displacement of international migrants in modern history. And those climate impacts, of course, are caused primarily by burning fossil fuels.
The Searing Reality
The Greek Coast Guard, already facing scrutiny for allegedly abandoning migrants at sea, claimed a massive rescue effort. Lesbos, Greece-based Refugee Support Aegean said that might not be the whole story, CBC reports.
"We have an official version,” said human rights volunteer Efi Latsoudi. “But I believe that if we have access and we investigate and we support the victims and they feel safe to talk about what happened, maybe we will have another version.”
Some early eyewitness reports had passengers forced to stay below decks while the boat sank.
The comparison between the two incidents spotlights the searing reality that “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” as British-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote nearly 15 years ago. “You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.” (Trigger warning: The full poem is powerful, raw, and deeply disturbing.)
I may be on shaky ground here, but I’m guessing that’s not a set of choices that Stockton Rush ever had to consider.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama weighed in on that point, not long before the fate of the Titan was confirmed.
“You think about what’s happening this week. There is a potential tragedy unfolding with the submarine that is getting, you know, minute-to-minute coverage, all around the world,” he said. “And you know, it’s understandable, because we all want and pray that those folks are rescued.” But “the fact that that’s got so much more attention than 700 people who sank….That’s an untenable situation.”
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
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